Words matter. Uniquely, the Torah describes God wielding words to create: “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1: 3). Words may also tear the fabric of relationship. creating distrust.
In the Torah, the misuse of words prompts a public shaming by a hideous scaling of skin. M’tzora, the title of our Torah reading, is often translated as leprosy, but is not the contemporary Hansen’s disease. The skin ailment described that turns the skin white is the only illness described in the Torah. When Moses at the burning bush speaks distrustfully of the Israelites, “What if they do not believe me?” God says put your hand into your garment over your breast. When he takes his hand out it is “like snow” (Exodus 4:6-7); only to return his hand under his robe and withdrawing it to normal. When Miriam later gossips about her brother Moses for his treatment of his wife, she develops leprosy and is quarantined outside the encampment for a week (Numbers 12:1-16). This Shabbat we read that once a person develops m’tzora, separation from the community was mandated for at least a week, a form of punishment as well as cure (Leviticus 14). In the Talmud, Res Lakish links the Hebrew m’tzora with “motzei shem ra,” the drawing out of a bad name,” warranting the experience of separation that hurtful words can cause others (Archin 15b).
A medical historian once told me that such a skin fungus was the rare disease in the ancient world that did not kill a person and yet looked deathly, explaining its special recognition in the Bible. And yet, I am also drawn to the rabbis claim that the only illness that warranted mention was the one specifically linked to misuse of the tongue. For if words create than lying, embarrassing, or conning others warrants severe condemnation. Miriam and Moses were effected, but only as a warning. Moses was also a model leader precisely because he used words consistently to heal relationships and to speak on behalf of those who were the widow and the stranger. If only lying grew a person’s nose like Pinocchio or gossip prompted scale disease like in our Torah. In reality, people get away with a con and hurtful words. It is upon us to reject the crass or misleading use of words, especially by leaders, as shameful.